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  • The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China
  • Xiuyu Wang
The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China. By Sigrid Schmalzer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 368 pp. $85.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper).

Few states disseminated evolutionism more widely and intensively than twentieth-century China did, and, as a result, today party and state sponsorship still enshrines it as the ideological orthodoxy. While it has in the West been subject to ongoing criticism and debate in scientific and religious circles, in China the theory remains largely shielded from public critical scrutiny, scientific or historical. Benjamin Schwartz, in his In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West (1964), shows that Darwinist concepts were introduced to the Chinese literati at the turn of the nineteenth century in a social evolutionist guise resulted from a theoretical leap from Darwin's original argument on the survival of the fittest individual biological species to a wider assertion about the survivability of entire societies, conceived as equivalent with collections of species. As popular science serving a political agenda, it was used by reformist literati to remove the obstacle of Confucian conservatism from their pursuit of wealth and power, which were understood to be the source of power of the industrializing West. For the Chinese nationalists in the first half of the twentieth century, as James R. Pusey has argued in his China and Charles Darwin (1983) and Lu Xun and Evolution (1998), the evolutionist theory justified revolutionary measures of central control in the name of national salvation. Sigrid Schmalzer's book extends the coverage across the Nationalist-Communist divide but focuses mostly on the communist period. The primary contributions of the book are Schmalzer's insights into the communist state's institutions, ideological dictate, and political [End Page 356] struggles that buttressed evolutionism's rapid rise to hegemony, although her popular science angle and concern with human identity issues broaden its interest.

Although Yen Fu's translation had appeared by 1898 and the Peking Man skullcap was unearthed in 1929, rapid spread of evolutionism did not occur until 1952, half a century after its introduction. History textbooks of the Republican era (1912–1949) rarely mentioned the Peking Man, and evolutionism was only one account of human origin along with Chinese stories of legendary ancestors. In communist Yan'an since 1942, party-sponsored dissemination was attempted among cadres and intellectuals outside the party. Yet, as late as spring 1951, a Christian writer could still publish his observation that scientists did not regard the theory as proven because of the spottiness of the fossil record and difficulties in interpreting what existed (p. 78). Therefore, evolutionism came to dominance after the Communist Party consolidated control of state apparatus in propaganda and education after 1949, with which a nationwide ideological campaign could be launched.

Schmalzer observes that much of the campaign's momentum and coordination derived from the institutional linkages formed by scientists and party "thought workers," whose conjoint service in multiple state ministries provided consistency and breadth to dissemination over time (p. 64). Although more thorough documentation on these institutions and personages would strengthen Schmalzer's perceptive observation here, she has shown persuasively that instilling an evolutionary view of human identity was a business of the highest priority for the communist revolution for reasons beyond just propaganda needs during the Korean War. A fundamental prerequisite for a materialist worldview was the destruction of "superstition" and "Christian idealism," which, as Schmalzer explains, accounts for the state's disproportionate attack on Christian creationism since 1949, even though the political influence of the Christian church in 1949 was minimal and its four million members constituted a small minority among the country's five hundred million (p. 75). Moreover, the communist theory of societal change depends on a positing of the "primitive" society, and, if this stage is portrayed as egalitarian but technologically rudimentary, ideological ammunition would be provided to class struggle and socialist reconstruction. Without assuming that disseminators had always systematically thought through these theoretical matters before launching campaigns, the author has made a generally valid case that human origin and identity issues...


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pp. 356-359
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